Our strange year saw me, and maybe you, eating most of my restaurant meals at home. I also ate them in parks when the sun let me. A few times, facing a long drive back to my house, swayed by aromas and the desire to taste food when hot and fresh and still retaining its pre-takeout textures, I even inhaled a pizza slice and arepa in my car.
That’s far from ideal. But so was 2020.
This year, I was drawn to comfort food, to traditional dishes that provided a simple lift. For me, it was all about those old-school meals, the ones that tunneled into my memory or somebody else’s, with a few key exceptions. For that reason, this list might be more personal than others. For 2020, these dishes were my 10 favorites.
Ropa ViejaFe La Cubana
5821 North 67th Avenue, #110, Glendale
My first bite of Fe La Cubana's ropa vieja, melting beef forked up from a compact tangle mounded in scarlet juices, teleported me back to Hudson County, New Jersey, an enclave of Cuban food that I lived in for seven years. My meal had been ladled from a warm tin under the Spanish of a TV filtering over this small, proud Cuban cafeteria. Just a few tables. Simple white plates heaped with rice, beans, and meats. A few taxi drivers come at the lunch hour, always a promising sign. This hot, red-pepper-flecked ropa vieja walked a line as fine as each violin string of stewed beef: intensely rich, yet light and touched with just enough garlic.
Cacio e PepeTratto
1505 East Van Buren Street
Cassie Shortino cooks a lot of great food and a lot of great pasta dishes, but none of them beat her cacio e pepe. At the old Tratto, where I had my last meal out with my family before March’s shutdown, eaten on the patio with cocktails and sun, this was an off-menu item. It is a Roman classic, classically minimal, nothing but pasta and black pepper and sheep’s milk cheese. At Tratto, a plate of coiled long-strand pasta, noodles adeptly crafted and cooked to retain a hearty chew, arrive both fused with and dripping that simple peppery melted cheese. Her best pasta, and also, I believe, the Valley’s.
Beef WellingtonCentury Grand
3626 East Indian School Road
We arrive to an inevitable portion of this list: to a kitchen that has now closed. (Note: the varied bars of Barter and Shake Hospitality remain open.) Former Century Grand Chef Sacha Levine, wherever she’s cooking, provides a portal to lush, colorful, vibrantly original flavor worlds. With her pedal-down riff on beef Wellington, she took eaters back to a stodgy classic, yes, but also hurtling ahead. She edits ratios, swaps ingredients: the puff pastry shrinks in relation to the beef, which morphs to beef cheek jolted with pork jus. With the help of meaty mushrooms, the dish sucked you down a joyous black hole of umami.
Cabeza TacoTaco Boy’s
620 East Roosevelt Street
My advice to you upon entering Taco Boy’s is to greedily inhale but remain unswayed by the aroma of grilling steak and mesquite charcoal pouring from the grates. Or at least to look beyond carne asada for part of your meal. Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr. rock out other dishes as well. In my mind, cabeza is the top meat at this new-classic taqueria. Drippy slips of beef check (“the filet mignon of the head,” Juan Jr. says) collapse into heady tenderness during a five-hour stewing. This fatty meat is made for the leaf-thin, griddle-warmed flour tortillas the father-son team drives up from Sonora.
Wok-fried Chow MeinSherpa Kitchen
Though now closed, Sherpa Kitchen was my favorite new restaurant of 2020. Subash and Chandra Yadav had a great thing, and, luckily, they have a new related Nepalese venture cooking. Subash’s wok-fried chow mean was briefly iconic. A mound of udon noodles cooked to leave good bite came accented with more kinds and colors of hyperlocal vegetables than I could track. The heat of these noodles had rare finesse: strong but agile and fruity, balanced, propelling but also anchoring the noodles enough for you to savor the freshness of the purple cabbage, red pepper, many kinds of carrots, and more.
Chicken Malai and HariyaliMeatwala PHX
In summer, former Blue Hound chef Dushyant Singh called a pandemic audible, pivoting to a home delivery business of Indian meats. When you order Meatwalla, you get a ready-to-grill package of chicken thighs, beef kebabs, and/or lamb. With these, you can include sides like daal and pickled red onions. On the night I ordered a package, I fired up my grill and got busy. Singh’s yogurt-based marinades are forgiving. I may have overcooked my chickens some, but every succulent bite rippled with the flavor of the animal, the particular cut, Singh’s sharp-but-round aromatics, and his ground, toasted spices.
142 West Main Street, Mesa
The above picture shows Que Chevere’s cachapa stuffed with beef. I prefer this stellar corn pancake without the meat. Ordering it plain gives you an unmitigated feeling for how much magic is in the subtle interplay of corn, milk, and cheese. The lightly sweet pancake takes the shape of an omelet, thick, folded, and spilling melted cheese. Made from milk, both cornmeal and fresh corn, and flour, the pancake packs layers and layers of corn, its earthiness muted, its sweet fragrances lengthened and merged with those of the milk. Major bonus: There's creamy melted queso mano in almost every bite.
Kaeng Hang LayLom Wong
In the world of pop-up takeout, you can't do better than Alex and Yotaka Martin’s Lom Wong. The two center the unfiltered flavors of Thailand’s regions, often those of its north, and usually featuring ingredients and/or dishes hard-to-impossible to find elsewhere in the Valley. Their Kaeng Hang Lay is astounding. Pork belly hunks have so much aromatic zap they almost slap your head sideways. The dish is endlessly rich with a galaxy of fragrant botanicals and the soulful leakings of pork fat. Martin spent hours grinding the dish's chile paste — just one of its many components. Others include ginger, tamarind, and fermented garlic, all melding into a piercing song of a faraway place.
Mutton SandwichEmerson Fry Bread
In the early days of the pandemic, the food truck Emerson Fry Bread ditched its wandering to park regularly by Phoenix Indian Medical Center. And so it began to amass a cult following for its new Navajo mutton sandwich, made by operators Loren Emerson and Roxanne Wilson, the latter Diné. They build it on a lumpy tan pillow of warm, unfolded frybread. Grilled mutton goes on next — seasoned with nada but salt and pepper, meat right off the leg. Onions and Hatch chiles are showered atop, baked potato and a segment of corncob placed along the rim. The sandwich is stark, with chew, history, rare warmth, and deep animal flavor.
Dinner at KaiKai Restaurant
5594 West Wild Horse Pass Boulevard, Chandler
Before the first rumor of a shutdown, I ate a meal at Kai. It’s hard to divide this meal into parts given how its ideas, ingredients, and flavors flowed, so I'll be treating it as a whole. It opened with Ramona Farms blue corn killed before harvest by frost, salvaged by chef Ryan Swanson, fried crisp, and perched in huitlacoche charged with pickled shallots. It passed from creamy bison bone marrow crème brulee to scallop sausages to octopus in a desert-glorifying sauce combining wolfberries and chiltepines to a course you only smelled and to other places near and far and finally into memory, now of what was possible in the before times.
Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.